"Sing sing sing, till dem beat me
Beat beat me, till dem think say I don die
Dem tie my hands dem tie my legs dem throw me inside police cell
I must looku and laughu"
This is one of the most bizarre tales in the big book of music history, a book
already filled with drama, mystery, wonder, triumph, joy and even outrage. This
one, though... this one takes outrage beyond the limit. This is the story of an
African man who was a musician. A saxophonist and leader of a band that resembled
a small army, as they were 70 strong. Being a Nigerian, and having the ears of his
fellow Nigerians while their country was controlled and brutalized by a military
dictatorship, this musician spoke out in every way he could, from his music right
down to the art on his album covers, and he paid a price. He paid with his freedom,
he paid with his family and his friends, and some say he paid with his life. The
latter is debatable.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1938. His father was a piano
playing minister and his mother was a political activist, rare for a woman in Nigeria.
They packed Fela off to London in 1958 because they wanted him to be a doctor, but
Fela had caught the music bug. High Life is happy dance music that blends Latin jazz,
various Caribbean sounds and groovier R&B, and while in London Fela played it in bars
while attending Trinity College's music department. His parents thought he was at med
school. As you can see, even as a young man nobody was going to tell this guy what to
do. For whatever reason - perhaps a professor tried to tell him what to do - he quit
school in 1963 and started playing the clubs full time, taking the High Life music he'd
been influenced by and adding new touches, shaping it with American R&B, deepening the
grooves and making it his own. He called it Afro-Beat.
In 1969, Fela took his group to Los Angeles, California, where some important
changes took place. He became familiar with the writings of Malcolm X and Eldridge
Cleaver, which fired him up politically, and from then on he was resolved as to the
direction of his music. The band, which was then known as Koola Lobitos, was renamed
Fela Kuti & Afrika 70. It was at this time that some phenomenal sessions were recorded.
Eventually they would become known as The '69 L.A. Sessions. MCA has spent the past
two years re releasing a huge portion of Fela's catalog, and The '69 L.A. Sessions is
now on CD, bundled with six previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1964 and 1968
as Fela was molding and shaping Afro-Beat. Though it was released in the second batch
by MCA (they kicked out one huge stack of CDs in 2000 and another in 2001), it is the
logical starting point for exploring and discovering the music of Fela Kuti because it
allows you to hear the evolution of Afro-Beat. The lyrics are in Yoruba, but you'll
do fine with the groove.
Returning to Nigeria, Fela and his band recorded at a rather rapid pace, and his famous
pattern emerged. First establish the groove. Not just any groove, mind you, but one
which will soon have the music plugged directly into the minds of the listeners who are
dancing with the music as if possessed. Then begin to talk, slowly at first, easing
them in before going into a full-on rant against the brutality of the Nigerian military
regime, or the foolishness of organized religion, or the evils of big business or whatever
happened to have the misfortune to fall into Fela's gun sites that day. His concerts are
said to have been spiritual experiences that thrilled all but the targets of his rants.
Though his albums could never recreate that experience entirely, the effect of listening
to an entire Fela Kuti album with ears open is intoxicating and exciting, and one does
see where his troubles began.
Fela spoke out in his music, without fear of reprisal, but reprisals came. When your albums
carry titles like Coffin For Head Of State, Zombie (a reference to the mentality of the
soldiers) and Authority Stealing, and you live in a place where the government makes up
their own rules, you're going to have trouble. Fela was regularly arrested, tortured,
or at very least harassed. His band members and others associated with him could expect
similar treatment. Since Fela was rarely seen without a joint in his mouth, he gave the
government an excuse to pick him up whenever they wanted to. Perhaps he wanted that martyr
image. If I'm poking the tiger with a stick, I'm not going to be wearing a steak around my
neck. Whatever his reasons, he did what he did, took the chances he took, and God bless him
for speaking out against such a terrible dictatorship.
After a particularly rousing concert in 1977, a thousand soldiers made a midnight raid on the
complex where Fela and his family and band lived and recorded. They beat the hell out of
everyone, and before they burned it all to the ground they threw Fela's 82 year old mother out
an upstairs window. She didn't die right away, unfortunately for her. She lingered a while,
another Nigerian suffering at the hands of the zombies of the military regime. Outraged
beyond consolation, Fela's attacks grew sharper and the cycle grew ever more vicious.
MCA's re-release series offers, in most cases, two Fela albums on each CD. Some of Fela's
albums were too long for this to be possible, so there are a few singles in the series.
Among the many highlights in a discography that is, after all, one enormous highlight, are
Expensive Shit/He Miss Road, Coffin for Head of State/Unknown Soldier, Teacher Don't Teach
Me Nonsense, Zombie, Yellow Fever/Na Poi, and V.I.P. (Vagabonds in Power)/Authority Stealing,
none of which endeared him to his government. Fela's tongue grew ever sharper and the
soldiers kept coming until the government found a way to put Fela in prison for ten years
on a trumped up charge of currency smuggling. Amnesty International took up his cause, but
it took a change of governments in Nigeria to actually bring about his release. As the 80s
drew to a close, Fela released Beasts Of No Nation (now backed with O.D.O.O.), which includes
attacks against Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It would be among his final direct hits
against perceived oppressors. Fela seemed to back off. As it turned out, Fela was very ill.
Fela spent his final years out of the spotlight, saving his fast-fading strength. To those
on the outside it must have seemed that he had finally been beaten into submission, and in a
way he had, but not by the gun butts of soldiers. Fela, who had changed his family name of
Ransome Kuti to Anikulapo (which means "one who keeps death in his pouch") Kuti, died on August
2nd, 1997 at the age of 58. Many of his followers say he died because of a weakened body due
to years of torture by the government, but the official cause of death is listed as heart
failure due to complications from AIDS.
There are many reasons to believe this to be the case, just as there are many reasons a
writer might struggle when faced with telling the story of a man who was a hero in so many
ways and also, unfortunately, an unrepentant jerk. Although Fela's mother was a feminist and
her country's first female politician, Fela seemed to harbor a lot of anger toward women and
view them mostly as objects of his own pleasure. He once married 27 women in one ceremony
while wearing his trademark bikini briefs. If one of his women said something he didn't like,
she risked suffering his wrath. His wives couldn't count on his fidelity, and he saw no reason
to be discrete about it. Fela had a lot of sex with a lot of different women in a country
where AIDS is fairly rampant. That's gambling against a stacked deck. You can only keep death
in your pouch if you play the odds. Fela left behind over 50 albums that document the struggles
of a nation and the outrage of a man who never let anybody tell him to shut up.
His son, Femi Kuti, who played in his band, has broken out on his own and now has two
outstanding albums to his credit. The most recent, Fight To Win, suggests Femi Kuti
has taken up the reigns and will carry on as the voice of freedom for the oppressed,
but he's bringing in modern elements such as hip-hop without losing the main theme of
Afro-Beat. So a unique form of music continues to evolve and thrive, and its history
is made readily available in the United States. How fragile, when you think about it.
Femi Kuti may have gone another way. Fela certainly had many other children who did.
And MCA, a major label whose executives have to know Fela Kuti won't sell in mass quantities,
spent a fortune preserving history. Best not to ask why. Just put on Zombie, turn up
the volume and turn down the lights.
TITLES IN THE MCA RE-RELEASE SERIES
Koola Lobitos 1964-1968/The '69 Los Angeles
Up Side Down/Music of Many Colours
Yellow Fever/Na Poi
Ikoyi Blindness/Kalakuta Show
Expensive Shit/He Miss Road
Stalemate/Fear Not For Man
Shuffering and Shmiling/No Agreement
Opposite People/Sorrow Tears and Blood
Monkey Banana/Excuse O
Open and Close/Afrodisiac
Coffin for Head of State/Unknown Soldier
V.I.P. (Vagabonds in Power)/Authority Stealing
Original Suffer Head/I.T.T.
Beasts of No Nation/O.D.O.O.
Live In Amsterdam
Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense
Fela With Ginger Baker Live!
Roforofo Fight (with bonus tracks)